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Theatre Calgary set to present Iceland

By Troy Hasselman, October 15 2019 —

Iceland, a Canadian one-act play from Governor General’s Award winning playwright Nicolas Billon is set to begin playing as a presentation of Theatre Calgary, with it’s première set for Oct. 18 at Arts Commons’ Max Bell Theatre.

The play takes place in Toronto amidst the backdrop of the 2008 global financial crisis, centering around three interwoven monologues from different perspectives on the crash. Halim, a profit-motivated capitalist who works in real estate, Anna, a tenant that has been convicted by Halim’s property-flipping and Kassandra, an Estonian history student who also works as an escort who has been hired by Halim.

The play is directed by Calgary’s Jenna Turk and stars three Calgary-based actors — Praneet Akilla as Halim, Lara Schmitz as Anna and Arielle Rombough as Kassandra. All three have previously worked in Calgary theatre productions including Akilla in A Christmas Carol and As You Like It, Rombough in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Schmitz in Romeo & Juliet. Akilla’s past work experience as a chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry, which he left to pursue acting, had an influence on his portrayal of Halim.

“Only about two years ago, before I became a full-time actor, I was very much the character I’m playing,” Akilla says. “Not so much in the chauvinist manifesto about how he treats women or anything like that, but I certainly valued money a lot. I was on that oil and gas, engineering pathway where everything in my life that I thought was going to give me happiness was related to money. His diatribe in the play is about how ethics, morals and abstract ideas don’t stand a chance next to a pile of cold, hard cash. Unfortunately, that was my mindset to a certain extent in the corporate world and I wasn’t alone in that. There’s a lot of people that work in these industries like engineering or finance that believe in that. I think part of what helps me play the character I’m playing is that I’m not so far removed from it.”

Despite the name, Iceland takes place in Toronto and instead uses the nordic country as a metaphor for the economic ruin that can be caused by mass-privatization and deregulation. Though the events of the play take place over a decade ago, they still feel just as relevant today.

“Iceland is a metaphorical representation of what can happen if you deregulate and privatize your banking system — human greed kind of takes over,” Akilla says. “Unfortunately, the themes of human greed and why we are the way we are and why we keep telling the same stories and never learn from them is still relevant to this day. I think a big part of it is also instinctual — we’ve evolved as a species to be greedy. It’s also a societal expectation, that more money means more comfort and the ability to afford the good things in life.”

Though it would be easy to portray Halim as simply the villain of the play, Akilla has been mindful to not just play him as a caricature of greed. As with any person, there are nuances to Halim’s character that Akilla has been been sure to portray.

Photo of Praneet Akilla in rehearsal, courtesy of Christopher Loach.

“If you peel back the layers on a person and you look at his circumstances, you look at nature versus nurture, you look at where he comes from, you look at his financial background and class background, it’s tough to judge a person just from the exterior with the words the playwright has given us,” Akilla says. “It’s easy to take a first look at the play and say ‘Oh, this guy goes against everything I believe in’ and judge him for it. It’s my job as an actor to never judge a character, it’s to understand where he came from, why he’s thinking the way he’s thinking.”

Though the play is based on an acclaimed script that won a Governor General’s Award, Akilla doesn’t feel the pressure of acting in a work that has a strong reputation, rather seeing the play as an opportunity and having faith in the team working with him.

“I just look at it as a great opportunity,” Akilla says. “To say Nicolas Billon’s words is such a privilege. I relish the challenge to convey the words to an audience and make them feel something. It’s my dream as an actor to play such a meaty role and part, we have such an incredible staff and cast and crew. Theatre Calgary’s a wonderful company to work for and they all make it easy and we all emotionally support each other and we have a great director in Jenna Turk, who’s leading the charge. As long as you’re in good hands with good leadership I don’t necessarily feel the pressure of it.”

The play deals heavily with the theme of loneliness, especially the loneliness that can be felt in large cities. Akilla sees the root of this loneliness in the relentless pace and ambition that makes up life in large cities for so many.

“In big cities, where the pace is always high, you feel the pressure of always being on the go,” Akilla says. “You’re always in a sea of people trying to accomplish something, whether it be the next promotion or next job or impressing somebody else. It’s all based on external validation. Because of our endless search to achieve those things we forget to take care of our health, we forget to take care of who we are as people. It’s not until we go home and it’s extremely quiet around — we say ‘I just feel incredibly empty inside.’ All three characters in the play are tied to their profession and objectives so they don’t take the time to think about what makes them happy.”

The set of the play will also feature 16 onstage seats for audience members. The seats are to be placed to look out of a neighbouring building on the set, an allusion to the play’s themes of voyeurism. This is unique for the play and Akilla is excited for the challenges posed by this as an actor.

“I think it’s gonna be great. Throughout our rehearsal process we’ve been keying in on that,” Akilla says. “I think those people in the audience also represent that all of us are implicated in the same thing. We’re not pointing fingers at anybody, and we’re all in this together and all have the same issues and problems. That’s the importance we place in the audience behind them. We’re not necessarily calling them out, but that’s why we have them onstage.”

Akilla thinks this play is especially something that university students would be interested in. Students interested in seeing the play can even obtain a discount on admission with their student cards.

“This is an 18-plus play and we talk about some cutting edge stuff,” Akilla says. “It’s a really good play specifically for university students, whether it be finance students from Haskayne or engineering students from Schulich or any department, really. For post-secondary students, tickets are $20 so it’s an incredibly affordable night at the theatre.”

After holding previews from Oct. 15–17, Iceland runs from Oct. 18–Nov. 2, with performances happening from Tues.–Sun with curtains at 7:30 p.m. on Tues.–Thurs. and Sun. and 8:00 p.m. on Fri. and Sat., with weekend matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets for the general public start at $35 and are $20 for post-secondary students. More information about showtimes and tickets can be found at theatrecalgary.com.

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